Organisational rights and democracy

| Terry Bell

Potentially turbulent and conflicting currents among trade union federations have been exposed following an attempt by deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe to calm troubled labour relations waters.

Last Thursday, Motlanthe extended an invitation to to the Federation of Unions (Fedusa) to meet with him on Friday afternoon. According to Fedusa, this was “to to discuss the current spate of labour unrest in South Africa, specifically in the mining sector”.

It gave Fedusa general secretary Dennis George and his president, Koos Bezuidenhout, the opportunity to press for the scrapping of section 18 of the Labour Relations Act (LRA) that enables unions and employers to agree threshold levels of membership for unions to have “organisational rights” in the workplace. Such rights include shop stewards having paid leave for union activities, deductions of subscriptions and access to the workplace by union representatives.

This is the main area of dispute in the platinum belt where the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) long held sway and, on some mines, such as Impala Platinum (Implats) adopted a “winner takes all” posture, being the only union with full organisational rights. But the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) is now clearly in the majority, not only at Implats, but also at Anglo Platinum (Amplats) and at Lonmin.

However, the Fedusa intervention about section 18 has caused considerable annoyance with Cosatu and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu). It has also put further strain on relations between Fedusa and Nactu who are allied in the still only nominally active Southern African Confederation of Trade Unions (Socotu).

“This issue is not even on the table and [if it was] should, in an event, be discussed at National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac),” says Cosatu deputy general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali. “Dennis George has jumped the gun.” Nactu general secretary Narious Moloto agrees.

However, Fedusa, which houses a number of minority unions, has long opposed the majoritarian rule of any one union or group of unions that comprise 50 per cent plus one of members in any sector being able to make such decisions on organisational rights. “But there is nothing wrong with the law,” says Ntshalintshali. He points out that it is up to negotiations between employers and unions as to what rules should be in play “and the majority will decide”.

Since Amcu became the dominant union on major mines throughout the platinum belt, there has been an ongoing battle about organisational rights and the membership thresholds at which they should be granted. Amcu president, Joseph Mathunjwa maintains that “management and the minority unions keep shifting the goalposts” in this regard.

Althugh Amcu has stated that it is prepared, in negotiations, to lower the threshold for organisational rights to unions with 35 per cent of the workforce as members, this has so far been rejected. According to Mathunjwa, management at Implats has suggested a 20 per cent level, something which the combined membership of Cosatu-affiliated NUM and Fedusa-affiliated UASA can probably reach.

“I think what we are seeing here is a case of management deciding it is better to keep dealing with the devil you know rather than let the new boy on the block dominate,” says a CCMA official, speaking in his private capacity. NUM has also made clear it intention to use its organisational rights to regroup and to win back the members it has lost.

“But we cannot have every little union having full and equal rights in the bargaining process,” says Moloto. “Nactu feels that every union that has, say, 30 per cent of members should be recognised within the process.”

Ntshalintshali maintains that scrapping the relevant section of the LRA would encourage “chaos”. It was up to unions and managements to negotiate whatever system best suited them.

Mathunjwa agrees. “But then, we are the majority union and, at Implats, for example, management and the minorities met, without Amcu, and made decisions. That, you see, is the real problem.”

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